Survivors of Cambodia stampede recall panic

Cause of tragedy remains unclear as death toll rises to 456

Students pray for victims in front of the bridge where the tragedy took place in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. AFP

The cause of the stampede on Monday night during Cambodia’s annual water festival was unclear, but most of the dead were suffocated or trampled or crushed to death on a small bridge that became so packed that survivors said they had been unable to move or even breathe.

Some of the dead drowned or were killed when they leaped from the bridge into the Bassac River or onto concrete pilings nearby. Witnesses said some people were wedged for hours among the dead, calling out for water, as the police used batons to push back crowds so they could clear the bridge.

“They were stacked up like firewood on a pile, people just up and up and up, more than five people up,” said Heng Sinith, a photographer for The Associated Press, who said he could hardly bear to press his shutter as he watched.

“People were calling out for water,” he said. “ ‘Please help me, please help me!’ I feel so bad that I could not help them. I could not help them because they were locked together.”

The government denied reports that some were electrocuted by loose wires on the bridge. Some survivors said the crowd panicked when people shouted that the swaying bridge was about to collapse.

Millions of people pour into the capital each year and line the river’s banks and islands in almost impenetrable crowds for a boat race that is the climax of a festival that marks the end of the rainy season.

One survivor, Chan Chhay Loeurt, 25, a student, said he had no idea what happened.
“Just people squeezed together,” he said. “I fell unconscious. When I woke up, I was in a police car next to a dead body.”

Video from the site showed bodies scattered on the ground and frantic rescuers rushing among them.

At Calmette Hospital, Nyo Sun, lifted the skirt of the tent serving as a temporary morgue, reaching in to touch the foot of her 19-year-old daughter, Chanda, a garment factory worker who had been the main breadwinner for her rural family. “I don’t know how I’m going to get her home. I have no money to transport her.”

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